In the first edition of “The 2011 Arms Race” I broke down which National League clubs could compete with the Philadelphia Phillies slew of pitching talent. While the Phillies, on paper, still trump anything the American League has to offer, let’s take a look at which AL clubs could spoil the Phillies’ parade plans should they get back to the World Series.
At first glance the National League appears to have a stronger crop of dominant pitchers (Lincecum, Lee, Halladay, Carpenter, Wainwright, Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, Ubaldo Jiminez, etc.). In fact, the NL teams dominated the list of best staffs based on the top four pitching statistics (ERA, QS, BAA, and WHIP), but the AL also has to face much tougher lineups on a day-to-day basis, so in many ways the statistics are a wash.
With that said, I apologize to some dominant, division changing pitchers who will not be relevant here because the rest of their staff isn’t up to par (reigning AL Cy Young winner “King” Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia of the Yankees, and Justin Verlander of the Tigers). The absence of those pitchers, along with the departure of Cliff Lee to the National League, eliminates any clear cut favorite among AL teams going into 2011. There are, however, many teams that have solid rotations from start to finish, and will battle all year long to be considered the best. Here are five AL teams that will vie for pitching supremacy in 2011:
• Texas Rangers: Like the Giants, you have to dethrone the AL champs to knock them out of the argument. While Cliff Lee’s departure hurt, the Rangers hope that 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb will return to form and help pick up the slack. Don’t forget, too, that Lee joined an already very good staff for the final half of the season, and the Rangers will rely heavily on the young arms of Colby Lewis, CJ Wilson, and Tommy Hunter. Last season those three combined for a solid but underwhelming 40-25 record, but came up big down the stretch and the playoff run is sure to boost their confidence going into 2011. Playing a handful of games against the Seattle Mariners will certainly be confidence boosters, as well.
• Boston Red Sox: Yes, Josh Beckett had a horrible year last year battling through injures, but he is only one year removed from a 17-6 season where he posted an ERA under 4.00. Not to mention he has two World Series rings and two postseason MVP awards. Even if Beckett doesn’t regain his old dominance, the Red Sox still have two studs in Clay Buckholtz (17-7, 2.33 ERA in 2010) and Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA) who will carry the majority of the load for this rotation. With longtime knuckleballer Tim Wakefield gone, former Angels ace John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka aren’t what they once were (Daisuke has never lived up the hype), but with twenty-three wins between them last year they are above average pitchers that any team would gladly take as their #4 and #5 starters.
• California Anaheim Los Angels Angels of Anaheim Los Angeles Angels: Speaking of the Angels, they are loaded from top to bottom with quality starting pitchers, and are arguably the best overall pitching staff in the AL going into 2010. Jered Weaver finally took over the Angels staff in 2010 once Lackey jetted for Boston in the offseason, and he posted team bests 3.01 ERA and 233 K’s in the process. Sounds like he took advantage of the opportunity to be “the guy” to me. Even if teams handle Weaver without much trouble, they’ll still have to face Ervin Santana (17-10), Dan Haren (who should fair much better without the pressure of being acquired while the Angels were in the middle of a heated AL West playoff race against the Rangers), former Rays ace Scott Kazmir (no longer an ace, but a solid 4th starter at this point in his career), and Joel Pineiro (10-7, 3.84 ERA).
• Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays will go as far as David Price can take them, but he didn’t do it alone. The only other AL team to finish in the top ten in the Majors for team ERA last year, the Rays will rely on their young, but relatively experienced arms to take them back to the postseason. Price’s 19-6 record and a 2.72 ERA speaks for itself, and again, was a huge reason they were able to win the AL East last year. That’s a huge accomplishment if you’re a Rays fan, especially playing and paying against the Yankees and Red Sox. Though #2 man James Shields struggled down the stretch in 2010, he still finished with 13 wins, and Wade Davis (12-10), Jeff Niemann (12-8), and young Jeremy “Hellboy” Hellickson fresh out of the Rays farm system should be consistent starters to round out the rotation. At the very least, the Rays will give the Yankees and Red Sox something to sweat about late into the summer.
• Oakland Athletics: I admit, three AL West teams seem excessive, but when you look just at their pitching rotations, it’s hard to argue against them. The A’s farm system must be ridiculously talented, because every time they let an All-Star or potential All-Star pitcher walk away (Hudson, Haren, Zito, Mulder, and now Duscherer, they plug in another young arm into the rotation without missing a beat (Anderson, Cahill, Braden). Anchored by Trevor Cahill (18-8, 2,97 ERA) the A’s as a team finished 6th or better in the Majors in all four major pitching categories (4th in ERA, 1st in quality starts, 6th in WHIP, and 5th in BAA). Behind Cahill the Athletics will be confidently throwing out Gio Gonzalez (15-9, 3.23 ERA), Brett Anderson (7-6, 2.80 ERA and 13 QS in 19 games) to keep opposing hitters at bay. While the A’s may need another perfect game or two from Dallas Braden to make a real run against the Rangers and the Angels, it certainly won’t be the pitching to blame if they find themselves watching the playoffs on television once again.
Apologies also to any AL Central fans that none of your teams were represented on my list. If you feel your team was unjustly overlooked, comment below and state your case. I’m always willing to listen to some well presented evidence.